Late for Nowhere

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Happy when it rains: Enjoying monsoon season

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Kids enjoy a monsoon shower at Shwesandaw Pagoda in Twante

When there’s nothing better to talk about, people the world over commonly resort to complaining about the weather.

In Myanmar, such grumbling reaches fever pitch in early May, when daytime temperatures in Yangon hover around, and even above, 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit). The heat can be even worse in Mandalay and other towns in central Myanmar. It’s the tail-end of the summer season, and aside from a few days of relief brought about by the splashing of water during the Thingyan Water Festival in mid-April, by early May the people of Myanmar have been dealing with intense heat for about two months. They’re ready for a change.

Fortunately, relief is on the way, and it comes in the form of monsoon season. The precise starting time of the southwestern monsoon varies from year to year, but it generally begins around mid-May in southernmost Myanmar, and advances northward to Yangon and the Ayeyarwady Delta the following week. In another week it will have covered the central regions, including Mandalay, and by early to mid-June the entire country is under the sway of the rainy season.


Rain clouds roll in over Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon

The earliest rains are usually brief and have little effect on the scorching temperatures, but day by day the strength of the monsoon intensifies. Increasing cloud cover reduces the power of the sun, and the intermittent precipitation is accompanied by cooling and refreshing winds blowing from the southwest.

As the month of May progresses, the rain ramps up and the daily high temperatures in Yangon trend downward toward more tolerable levels. In her book Flowers and Festivals Round the Myanmar Year, well-known author Khin Myo Chit (1915-1999) writes that this is a time of “lyrical dreams inspired by showers that fall like multicolored bead strings through the sun beams and fragrant vapors rising out of the sun-scorched earth, as gentle drops fall like mercy from heaven.”


Traveling through the mud at Inwa near Mandalay

These “lyrical dreams” don’t last long. The full moon of the lunar month of Nayon occurs in June, and by this time monsoon is in full swing. “Now everything is wet … just WET through and through. Dark skies, torrential rains and storms,” writes Khin Myo Chit. She describes how the booming of thunder evokes legends about Thagyamin, the king of the celestials, rallying his troops for war by playing a drum made from the shell of a giant crab, and using the crab’s claws as drumsticks. The flashing of the weapons during the battle is perceived by normal, earth-bound humans as lightning that fills the sky.


Pond with lotus flowers near Twante

One month after Nayon comes the full moon of the lunar month of Waso, and this marks the beginning of the three-month Vassa period, also known as Buddhist Lent or the Rains Retreat. During this time, monks are not allowed to travel overnight from their monasteries, and therefore they dedicate these months to intensive meditation and study of scripture. Many laypeople also adhere more closely to the Buddhist precepts by giving up meat or alcohol. Weddings are not allowed during this period, and music concerts and other public performances are frowned upon. As Khin Myo Chit writes: “It is a time for sobriety, self-denial and religious contemplation.”


Rainy day at Setse Beach, Mon State

Speaking of religious contemplation: While it might not seem immediately obvious, monsoon is a very pleasant time to visit pagodas in Myanmar. The air is fresh and breezy, and the stone tiles of the pagoda compound – which can be scorching hot at other times of the year – feel cool and invigorating on the feet. Walking barefoot on a rainy day can even invoke those carefree days of youth when it was okay to run out into the rain and splash around in the puddles. The crowds of pilgrims are also thinner during monsoon, lending a peaceful, contemplative air to the sacred surroundings. Often, the only sounds are the soft patter of precipitation and the gentle chiming of small temple bells in the wind.


A rain shower sweep toward Taungkalat at the bast of Mount Popa

It’s especially nice to visit rural pagodas set on high ground, or those designed with upper walkways that offer views of the surrounding landscape, which at this time of year will be practically glowing with flowers and bright green plant-life. This is a great time to visit the ancient city of Bagan in central Myanmar, where the emerald vibrancy of the monsoon vegetation harmonises with the huge number of red-brick pagodas that dot the plains. Shwesandaw and many smaller pagodas in Bagan have stairways that can be climbed to reach upper terraces from which amazing vistas can be seen.


Moss-covered Buddha image at mid-monsoon, Pyay

In fact, one of the keys to enjoying monsoon is to get out of the city as much as possible. In urban areas like Yangon, heavy rain brings all sorts of problems. Streets flood with water that is slick with oil and clogged with trash and other debris. Traffic jams get worse, and taxi fares skyrocket as demand increases. Most people think only of dashing from one shelter to the next, and of keeping their hairdos as dry as possible while doing so.

Out in the countryside the scene is very different. In the Ayeyarwady Delta, for example, waterlogged, wind-rippled paddy fields stretch to the horizon, and farmers, seemingly oblivious to the weather, can be observed planting the rice that will be harvested during the coming dry season. In places like Kyaing Tong and Kyaukme in Shan State, the hills are carved into utilitarian yet scenic terraces to maximize the land area on which crops can be grown. During monsoon, these terraces exhibit an amazing green hue as rice sprouts in abundance across the mountainsides.


Winding road in Shan State

The great beauty of the monsoon landscape has even prompted some guides in Kyaing Tong to insist that the rainy season is the best time for trekking in eastern Shan State. This might seem counterintuitive: There is just no way to avoid getting damp if you spend a day walking through the forest, even if you carry an umbrella. But once you’re wet, you won’t even notice the precipitation. Indeed, it can be quite enjoyable to be out in nature, feeling the warm drops on your skin, listening to rain drumming on the leaves, and gazing at sublime, panoramic visions of mist-shrouded mountains.

Monsoon starts loosening its grip during the lunar month of Tawthalin (September). The rain still falls, but sunshine increasingly finds its way through the cloud-cover. The rivers are brimming with water, and in some places the Ayeyarwady appears more like a lake than a flowing waterway. Inle Lake in Shan State is now at its highest level, and Tawthalin is the time for the lake’s famous Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival. The three-week event features boat races with teams from different villages around the lake, who propel their vessels across the water using the strange leg-rowing technique used by local fishermen.


One of the hazards of back-road travel during rainy season: A bullock cart rescues a pickup truck from a mud pit near Shwebo

The gradual change in weather during this time marks the buildup to Thadingyut (October), a magical festival of lights during which Buddhists set out candles to help guide the Buddha back to earth from the celestial realm, where he has spent the three-month Rains Retreat. The arrival of Thadingyut marks the end of Buddhist Lent, and with the skies now clear, it is the season of pagoda festivals, music concerts and weddings, with cool winter weather just around the corner. With a few rare and fleeting exceptions, the rain won’t be seen again for at least six months.


Some of Myanmar’s best sunsets occur during monsoon season

Written by latefornowhere

July 30, 2013 at 2:26 am

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